What do we do when a neo-Nazi speaks at a Left venue?

A sharp controversy has been raging in New York City Left circles for the past week, as one of the city’s few remaining Left spaces allowed a neo-Nazi to speak as part of a forum about the 9/11 attacks.

I had originally intended to not name names because the intent with this article is to discuss the broader issues raised, not only one specific incident. But as the issue has been widely discussed already, there isn’t any point to withholding the name of the locale, The Commons in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, this issue is much bigger than any one institution.

The basics are this: The owner of The Commons allowed the space to be used for a presentation by Christopher Bollyn, a virulent anti-Semite with a long history of publishing on neo-Nazi and white-supremacist sites. He was booked to speak as a “9/11 truther” who would talk on “9/11 and our Political Crisis.” Adding to the intrigue is that the owner of The Commons has herself been a prominent “9/11 truther.”

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

I don’t wish to paint with an overly broad brush. Many people who continue to investigate what happened on September 11, 2001, do so out of genuine principle and attempt legitimate research. There is no reason to believe the official government account of that day, and one need not believe 9/11 an “inside job” to question the official narrative. (So as to not hide my own perspective, I don’t believe 9/11 was an “inside job,” for multiple reasons, and I am skeptical of the so-called “truther” movement.)

Although reasonable research merits support, we should distinguish between people who investigate the commercial ties of Bush II/Cheney administration members or who make scientific inquiries into the physical properties of the World Trade Center materials that were destroyed on 9/11 from the unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that shade off into the considerable anti-Semitism that permeates the “truther” movement. That movement consistently provides platforms for rabid anti-Semites, and that is to their cause’s detriment.

On what basis do we defend an objectionable speaker?

This issue is impossible to disentangle from the Right’s continual conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It is not difficult to distinguish criticism of the state of Israel for its apartheid policies and other crimes against humanity in its ongoing subjugation of Palestinians from blanket accusations against all Jews. Critics of Israel routinely do so. Ironically, one defender of the owner of The Commons decided to build on Right-wing tactics of misinformation by inverting the meaning of words when he absurdly claimed that “There are zionist-fascists who are trying to destroy The Brooklyn Commons as a venue for radical events.”

Huh? People who oppose neo-Nazism, and condemn anti-Semitism on a Left basis, are fascists — and Zionists! Truly remarkable. That statement can be dismissed as the desperate agitprop of an individual who has burned many a bridge. But what of the owner of The Commons herself? When asked to cancel the appearance of Christopher Bollyn, she responded with a lengthy statement that seems to have since been pulled from her venue’s web site. But, in part, she wrote:

“I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space.”

That is not unreasonable. But once it was brought to her attention, she could have canceled the event, as Busboys and Poets in Washington and the Unitarian Society of Hartford swiftly did when confronted with the nature of the speaker. Two paragraphs later, however, she wrote:

“I never intended for The Commons to be a safe space at all times. Nor was it designed to be a cozy cocoon for intramural debate among leftists. From the beginning my goal has been to foster discussion among disparate groups across a wide political spectrum.”

Nobody is asking for a “cozy cocoon,” and the many groups and individuals aren’t objecting because Bollyn is from another part of the political spectrum, but because he represents something that ought to be out of bounds anywhere: A Holocaust denier and an advocate of an ideology that calls for (and has attempted) genocide. There can be no “debate” with that. To deny the Holocaust is to endorse the murder of 6 million Jews and the Nazi ideology behind it. If we are part of the human race, we give no quarter to that. Period.

One other passage stood out in The Commons’ owner’s response. Although the venue has consistently been promoted as a Left space (and many Left organizations have offices there), she wrote:

“Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Lies and damned lies

If I were an advocate of charter schools, I sure would be upset at being grouped with a neo-Nazi. To be sure, advocates of charter schools peddle lies about the performance of them, and knowingly do so in the hopes of destroying public schools systems, reducing education to narrow training schools for future corporate drones and busting unions. Alas, there are liberals, unable to free themselves of corporate ideology, who go along with this, thereby making themselves useful dupes. But discussion of charter schools is a legitimate topic, however much we disagree with them.

flier-opposing-bollyn-at-the-commonsThe purpose of the above defenses is to obfuscate the issue and turn it into one of “censorship” and of Leftists’ supposed inability to tolerate opposing viewpoints. This is the first I had heard of charter-school advocates booking the space and although I might not like that, there is no comparison to inviting a neo-Nazi.

Another defender of the decision to allow Bollyn to speak, Nathan J. Robinson, did so under the straightforward title “Let The Kooks Speak. They will only embarrass themselves.” Writing in Current Affairs, Mr. Robinson said:

“[T]he best way to deal with a Holocaust denier is to allow him to hang himself with his own words. Because the historical reality of the Holocaust is among the most well-established of factual certitudes, anyone attempting to deny it will quickly be forced to resort to babble rather than reason. It is the simplest thing in the world to humiliate such people.”

He backs up this viewpoint by citing what he says happened at the talk:

“[A]ccording to witnesses, he simply rambled incoherently for nearly two hours to a tiny group of bored misfits. The AlterNet writer who went said it was a ‘pathetic spectacle’ with the ‘supposedly brave iconoclast, prevaricating for a half-empty room of gullible dimwits while dressed like a dad at a PTA meeting.’ The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel wrote that ‘not long after the talk started, people started to nod off,’ and that and that once you ‘strip away everything else … here was a middle-aged man dully clicking through slides.’ So Bollyn gave his speech, and he was a failure who converted nobody.”

Facing the larger issue

The point, however, isn’t that a raving anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and claims Jews assassinated John F. Kennedy to take over the U.S. government could be convincing. The issue here isn’t this or that individual speaker, it is the failure to confront anti-Semitism, racism and associated social ills. None of the defenders of allowing the speaker to talk have bothered to address the larger issue of the anti-Semitism that pervades the “truther” movement.

Take one prominent example. Many a “truther” (including some I personally know) repeat the preposterous argument that two, or five, (depending on the version) Mossad agents were “jumping up and down with joy” as the World Trade Center towers came down. This, sadly, seems to be widely believed among “truthers.”

Were these agents the same ones who called 2,000 Jews the night before to tell them not to go to work? What a busy day. Maybe the conversation went like this: “Yitzhak, Shlomo here. The family is fine, thank you. Listen, Yitzhak, I can’t stay on the phone; I’ve got another 500 to call tonight, but please stay home tomorrow because we’re taking out the towers. Oy, I better get time and a half for all these hours.”

Did the Mossad agents identify themselves to onlookers? Were they wearing Mossad name tags? (Maybe the tag read, “Hi, my name is Shlomo. I’m a Mossad assassin. How can I help you?”) Can anybody imagine one of the most professional (and thus deadly) spy agencies on Earth being so ham-fisted and obvious? No. Why would such a preposterous story gain traction for even a second? Because of belief, even if held unconsciously, that Jews constitute some sort of cabal, and when that arises on the Left it is among those who are unable to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.

I suppose that is not completely separable from a belief that because the U.S. government, or the Bush II/Cheney administration (take your pick) is capable of evil acts, all evil acts are done by them and thus 9/11 has to be an “inside job.” This is reductionist thinking. The irony of inside-job belief is that is actually lets U.S. foreign policy off the hook! Maybe people in the Middle East really are pissed off about the oppression they’ve endured thanks to U.S. imperialism and maybe some of them, with a deficit of political knowledge or guidance, decided that individual acts of terrorism would be their response.

Evil individuals or a rotten system?

We really need to get beyond the idea that no so much as a leaf moves without the CIA being behind it. I write that as someone fully aware of the CIA’s record (and have recounted it in numerous articles and in my book.) The CIA is not a secret cabal of evil people; it is simply the government agency that carries out much of the dirty work that is required to maintain capitalism and the U.S. as the financial and military center of it. If the CIA didn’t exist, some other agency would be doing that work.

Much of the 9/11 “truther” movement derives from an unwillingness to grapple with the concrete realities of the capitalist system, and the structural inequalities and oppression built into it. The CIA is not ultimately the problem; it is the system it serves.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to indulge in conspiracy theories than to systematically analyze the world we live in. Those evil doers did it! Let’s get rid of those bad people and all will be well! Anti-Semites who cast Jews in the role of evil doers, and assign responsibility for all ills to them, are just a more extreme version of conspiracy-theory mongers and, ultimately, lie on a continuum.

This I suspect is why otherwise rational people exhibit a willingness to believe ideas that fall apart once they are examined seriously, and why the “truther” movement is unwilling, or unable, to separate itself from unexamined, often unconscious anti-Semitism (such as the Mossad agents jumping for joy) nor even from outright virulent anti-Semitism that goes so far as to deny the Holocaust. Even if someone was unfamiliar with Bollyn before this episode (I, for example, had never heard of him), the most basic Internet search would find his work. The New York Left activist Carol Lipton, for example, did a quick search and found:

“Bollyn also makes repeated reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. … Bollyn regularly appears on David Duke’s blogs, blames Jews for all the ills in the world, is a strident Holocaust denier who refers to the ‘Holohoax,’ and has been quoted across Twitter in hundreds of posts to show everyone his fiercely Jew-obsessed and Jew-hating statements. He is credited by some 9/11 truthers with originating the theory that Israel and Mossad were to blame for 9/11. He blames Israel for everything from Orlando to problems in Ukraine. He was formerly a long-term writer with the American Free Press, a white supremacist newspaper that was founded by fascist Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby.”

The online magazine JewSchool similarly had little difficulty finding Bollyn’s rants, publishing a long list of his nonsense, including numerous mentions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” well known as a crude forgery concocted by the frantically anti-Semitic régime of Tsarist Russia.

Taking a stand, even at a cost

To their credit, several Left organizations that are tenants of The Commons issued a statement condemning Bollyn’s appearance:

“As organizations that work out of the Brooklyn Commons, we reject the antisemitic politics of Christopher Bollyn. We do not have any say in event booking and management at the Commons but agree that such politics should have no place in leftist spaces.”

One regular user of the space, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, has said it will “pull all of its classes and upcoming events” and go elsewhere, even though this will cause itself problems in the near term. And that brings up to the final point for now. Should a space that booked a neo-Nazi be boycotted?

That is not so easy to answer, especially for those familiar with the effect runaway gentrification has had on New York City real estate. This, alas, has to be practical discussion. One prominent Left activist, with a well-earned reputation for integrity, argues that any organization that stays by renewing its lease would lose its credibility and that people should cut its ties with the venue. Another prominent Left activist, with a similar reputation, argues the opposite, saying that to leave would be to allow the far Right to drive us out. “We have hardly any spaces left and an easily accessible space, such as The Commons, that includes both meeting rooms and a hall for large gatherings is not something we should easily abandon — such spaces are central to our organizing,” she said.

There is no simple answer here. For years, The Commons has provided a low-cost space for a variety of Left causes and events, and the Left organizations that rent office space do so at below market rates. (Full disclosure: I have given talks there, had my first book party there and have attended dozens of events.) It is very painful to have to have this discussion, but it has been forced upon us.

The question of real estate in a capitalist economy looms large here. If housing and real estate were not capitalist commodities, and instead meeting places and centers for organizers were part of a public commons, this discussion would not be necessary; organizers would not be dependent on the decisions of one person who, as the owner of a private property, is not necessarily answerable to a broader community. Organizers may choose to “vote with their feet,” but those would be individual decisions.

Housing should be a human right, and would be in a better world, but an incident such as under discussion here reminds us that the the issue of space goes beyond basic housing — the restoration of a public commons needs to be central to our struggles.

They throw us out of our homes but we get ice cream

If there were any doubt that gentrification has come to my corner of Brooklyn, that was put to rest last weekend with the appearance of an ice cream truck. An ice cream truck painted with the logo and red color of The Economist. Yes, it was just as this reads. Free scoops of ice cream were being given out as a young woman with a clipboard was attempting to get people to sign up for subscriptions to The Economist.

Not that there had been any reason to harbor illusions about gentrification — the glass-walled, high-priced high rises sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm are merely the most obvious of multiple signs. The neighborhood where I live, Greenpoint, is notable as a Polish enclave, although a sliver along the East River was mainly populated by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and artists two decades ago. In short, a place for people needing a (relatively) cheap (by New York City standards) place to live and which still possessed a working waterfront.

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

Not really the sort of folks who might be expected to read one of the two main flagships of the British finance industry. To watch, or participate in, an art parade, sure. That is the sort of procession one used to see. Or Mr. Softee, a local franchise with ice cream trucks (of the traditional sort) that played a jingle, over and over again, that had a way of getting inside your head, although not necessarily in a good way. One summer a Mr. Softee truck seemed permanently stationed on my block, leading me to write a poem on the uses of Mr. Softee’s ice cream other than eating and even as a talisman against an invasion of space aliens. As I said, the jingle has a way of getting inside your head.

But no matter how bizarre the sight of an Economist ice cream truck, there is nothing actually funny about gentrification. Not even a Financial Times ice cream truck in pink (although perhaps a little too close to the color of Pepto-Bismol for comfort there) would be funny. Systematic evictions, the wholescale removal of peoples, the wiping out of alternative cultures and the imposition of the soul-deadening dullness of consumerist corporate monoculture has become a global phenomenon.

Rent laws don’t help if your home can be torn down

This has accelerated to where not simply buildings are being emptied out, but entire complexes. In Silicon Valley, a San Jose apartment complex with 216 units is being demolished to make way for a luxury high-rise. The hundreds of residents there are protected from higher rents by local rent-control laws. But that law has a rather big loophole — the rent-controlled buildings can be torn down, and the residents kicked into the street with no recourse and no right to a replacement apartment. The San Francisco Bay Area as a whole lost more than 50 percent of its affordable housing between 2000 and 2013.

Gentrification literally kills — symbolized by the tragic death of Alex Nieto in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story brought to a wider audience in an essay by Rebecca Solnit, Mr. Nieto was a long-time resident of the Mission who was shot by police for being Latino in a local park — targeted because gentrifying techies, new to the neighborhood, decided Mr. Nieto was a threat and called the police, a tragic ending that was set in motion when a techie thought it amusing that his dog was menacing Mr. Nieto as he ate on a bench.

The Mission, as is well known, has long been a Latin American enclave. What is happening there, and in so many other neighborhoods in so many other cities, is no accident. Gentrification is a deliberate process. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Dictatorships of favored industries

There are interests at work here. The technology industry has a stranglehold on San Francisco, for example, its techies with their frat-boy culture rapidly bidding up housing prices and making the city unaffordable for those who made it the culturally distinct place it has long been. New York City is a dictatorship of the real estate and financial industries; the process of gentrification there has progressed through a mayor who snarls and can’t be bothered to hide his hatred for most of the people who live there (Rudy Giuliani), a mayor who covered himself with a technocratic veneer (Michael Bloomberg) and a mayor fond of empty talk but who is the Barack Obama of New York (Bill de Blasio). They follow in the footsteps of Ed Koch, who showed his humanitarian streak when he declared, “If you can’t afford New York, move!”

Despite the reasoning of a federal judge who two years ago overturned a San Francisco ordinance designed to slow down speculation in housing that accelerates exorbitant rises in rents, those rents do not rise without human intervention. Not a single county in the U.S. has enough affordable housing for all its low-income residents, according to a report issued by the Urban Institute, which also reports that only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households in the U.S. with incomes at or below 30 percent of their local median income.

The trend of rents taking up a bigger portion of income, although accelerating in recent years, is a long-term trend — one study found that rents have risen close to double the rate of inflation since 1938, and the prices of new houses at an even higher rate. Gentrification and the rising rents that accompany it are found around the world, from Vancouver to London to Berlin to Istanbul to Melbourne.

Just as markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the biggest industrialists and financiers, allowing the “market” to determine housing policies means that the richest developers will decide who gets to live where. The vision of former New York City Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg (enforced through policies kept in place by Mayor de Blasio) is of Manhattan and adjoining areas of Brooklyn becoming a gated city for the wealthy, with the rest of us allowed in to work and then leave. The most profitable projects for developers are luxury housing for millionaires and billionaires — interests coincide. Even when a local government makes a tepid attempt, under public pressure, to ameliorate the harshness of housing conditions, such as with San Francisco, it is swamped by the tidal pull of market forces.

This global phenomenon derives from a top-down global system, capitalism, under which housing is a commodity for private profit instead of a basic human right. A free scoop of ice cream really doesn’t compensate losing the ability to keep a roof over your head.

Civil rights marches versus the right to puke

It was a day of vivid contrast. One the one hand, tens of thousands marching through the streets, angry over a lack of justice and appalling inequality; on the other hand, the arrogance of privilege distilled in an alcohol-fueled invasion.

The Week of Outrage did meet SantaCon in the streets of New York City. “Taking the streets” has seldom meant such different things.

Despite the raw anger still felt in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and so many others), the December 13 Week of Outrage march in New York City was a model of peacefulness. A multi-cultural multitude, there was a real respect shown toward others throughout. Time and again, when somebody accidentally bumped into someone else — regardless of who bumped who — both would quickly say “excuse me.” I was even thanked for being there after gently bumping into someone else. I appreciated that, but I was only doing my duty as a human being.

Marching in the streets of New York City

Marching in the streets of New York City

Then we have SantaCon, where yuppies and other privileged White people in their 20s act out their “right” be as drunk as possible, to overrun neighborhoods and vomit on the sidewalk. In past years, New York’s edition of this annual spectacle of drunken obnoxiousness took place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood that has become the poster child for gentrification — once a center for artists and non-conformists, it is now completely overrun with bars and chain stores.

Even there, bar owners and bartenders were fed up with it, and faced with a community unified in its opposition, SantaCon decamped for the Chelsea and Flatiron neighborhoods to the north, at least based on the numerous sightings of drunk Santas as the Week of Outrage march passed through those areas.

The SantaCon revelers were frequently encouraged to join the march; the reaction was almost invariably a slack-jawed uncomprehending look as if they couldn’t conceive of doing such a thing. Likely they couldn’t. The one notable exception I saw was when I suggested to one frat boy-looking character who probably works on Wall Street that he forget about SantaCon and join the march. He responded with a fusillade of expletives. Ah well, the stock market had just had a bad week; perhaps he wasn’t able to throw any grandmothers out of their homes and was in a bad mood because of it.

Claiming drinking as a “creative” activity

The flavor of SantaCon participants was captured by the Village Voice:

“Doug Bunton, owner of [a Lower East Side tavern], says he allowed Santas into his bar one time and quickly vowed never to do so again. ‘A guy poked me with a candy cane and said, ‘Santa doesn’t pay,’ and from then on I make no exceptions. I think their purpose is to take over the bar and make you do what they want,’ Bunton asserts. ‘I think they should try doing it in the Bronx, and see what they get there.’ ”

That would be interesting. But as one can not have privilege without an ideology justifying it, an anonymous SantaCon representative offered this nonsensical gem in the same Village Voice article:

“SantaCon’s New York organizer, the one who gives his name only as ‘Santa,’ feels SantaCon is merely misunderstood. He says outsiders are uncomfortable with such an unconventional and creative celebration. He insists the event is not a bar crawl, but rather an excuse to dress up, go caroling, and spread holiday cheer. ‘It draws criticism very easily from people because it’s rare to see so much unbridled joy and optimism outside,’ the man called Santa tells the Voice.”

There you have it: Getting drunk and vomiting in the streets, and doing so while wearing corporate products symbolizing consumerist excess that were almost certainly manufactured with sweatshop labor in a poverty-stricken corner of the world is “unconventional” and “creative”!

It is impossible not to see links with the runaway gentrification washing over one New York City neighborhood after another. SantaCon goes naturally with this. Gentrification is part of a process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Undoubtedly, the SantaCon revelers, dressed alike and pursuing the same activity organized by someone else, believe they are rugged individualists, boldly displaying their “creativity.” That is what the corporate media tells them when they add a personal flourish to a corporate consumer product. Gosh, the corporate media wouldn’t lie, would they?

Corporate media get cold feet

The corporate media has begun turning against the fightback against the systematic police killing People of Color sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That is a sign of its effectiveness. The ludicrous under-counting of the size of the December 13 marches and the “reporting” of a Brooklyn Bridge incident later that evening by local newspapers that read like police department press releases indicate that those authorities who had hoped the ongoing demonstrations would have died down by now may be preparing more repressive approaches.

We’re not talking about mad-dog Murdoch media outlets, but rather newspapers that had reported on continuing unrest in Ferguson and elsewhere with minimal malice. The New York Daily News, for example, breathlessly declared: “Police said Sunday that they had arrested a hooligan who assaulted two police officers during protests on the Brooklyn Bridge overnight.” The paper made sure to stress that the arrestee had written poems containing “disdain for the cops.” Quelle horreur!

And lest we are tempted to chalk that up to tabloid excess, The New York Times, although too genteel to use a word like “hooligan,” dutifully presented the police version of the incident as undisputed fact, making sure to note the police allegation that the arrestee’s backpack was found with a sack of hammers a day after uncritically citing the police department’s obvious under-counting of the size of the main march.

The Brooklyn Bridge activists wound up marching to the Brooklyn housing project where another young Black man, Akai Gurley, was recently killed by police in a stairwell. (The officer who shot Mr. Gurley, instead of calling for help, texted his union representative.) A moment of silence was held for him. Although no time was lost in condemning activists as “guilty” following the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge, the murder of Mr. Gurley was swiftly declared an “accident” by the corporate media and by Mayor Bill de Blasio without even the pretense of an investigation.

I was not on the Brooklyn Bridge, so I can not definitively say what did or did not happen. (A two-minute YouTube video shows a struggle underway, but not what might have precipitated it.) But the use of provocateurs by police to justify crackdowns is hardly unknown, so newspaper reports ought to be read with considerable caution. The uniform use of police violence against peaceful Occupy protestors and encampments should be borne in mind.

I will note that the sole example of anything violent I witnessed was when one person slapped the side of a police wagon with a hand, and several people immediately admonished that person not to do that. And this was on a spontaneous march after the main march in which the very point was to walk in the street to bring traffic to a halt in a symbolic gesture of “no business as usual.” Dozens of motorists stuck in traffic nonetheless honked their horns in solidarity, several putting their hands out their windows for the marchers to slap a “high-five” in support.

Besides a demonstration featuring parents and other family members of people killed by police in Washington, there were demonstrations in Boston, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other places. In Oakland, anti-racist activists followed up by chaining themselves to the city police headquarters.

Taking aim at systems of repression

The continuing nature of these protests — they have been nearly non-stop since August and the December 13 events likely saw the biggest single-day total of demonstrators yet — has led some people to ask if this is the beginning of an uprising. It is far too early to say, but the ongoing willingness to disrupt “business as usual” through civil disobedience tactics certainly merits serious attention. Any movement serious about effecting a change has to aim squarely at the system in which individual police officers, or district attorneys, or courts, operate.

As Angela Davis said in a lengthy interview with The Guardian, the recent police killings are part of a long chain of repression. She said:

“There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan. There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice. … The problem with always pursuing the individual perpetrator in all of the many cases that involve police violence, is that one reinvents the wheel each time and it cannot possibly begin to reduce racist police violence. Which is not to say that individual perpetrators should not be held accountable – they should.”

Capitalism was built on slavery and the “triangular trade” in which which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. The North American plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying the genocide of Native Americans.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

Divide-and-conquer techniques, whereby we are set at one another’s throats for the scraps left to us by capitalist elites, are indispensable to the maintenance of massive inequality. No police officer says to him or herself, “I’m going to shoot this Black man to keep capitalism in place.” Nonetheless, the mixture of fear and loathing of Black men and women on the part of a White police officer from the suburbs with no connection to the community being patrolled is a product of structural racism. That racism, along with sexism, national hatreds, anti-Semitism and other backward ideologies, are propagated through a variety of social mechanisms, and survive partly because some people receive benefits from them and/or enjoy believing themselves superior to others through supremacist ideologies.

As long as working people allow ourselves to be divided, pointing figures at designated scapegoats, the economic structure that locks in inequality will remain untouched. That will require many people to examine and question their privileges. It would be unrealistic to expect SantaCon participants to do that, but the number of civil rights marchers greatly outnumbered SantaConners. We should not under-estimate the length of the task ahead, but that is a good start.

Mayor de Blasio is the Obama of New York City

He’s only been in office six months and I know we should be leery of making comparisons that risk becoming glib, but the consistencies are already too apparent to be ignored: Bill de Blasio is the Barack Obama of New York City.

Both took office with expectations higher than were reasonable but have fallen short of what someone with sober expectations might have expected. High expectations without mobilizing a movement to realize those expectations is part of the problem, true. That is, and is not, a mitigating factor. That too many hopes were poured into individual office-holders, and too little effort into holding them accountable, is beyond reasonable dispute. But that does not ameliorate the necessity of judging them by what they do rather than what they say.

And who they appoint. Among President Obama’s first significant appointments was Lawrence Summers to be his lead financial adviser. All was lost right there; an unmistakable neoliberal signal. Among Mayor de Blasio’s first significant appointments was William Bratton as police commissioner. Commissioner Bratton held that office under Rudy Giuliani, a time when the New York Police Department often acted like an occupying army, with relations between the police and, in particular, Black and Hispanic communities, abysmal.

He followed his Giuliani-time stint with a lucrative deal with Kroll Inc., a security firm that describes itself as “Wall Street’s eyes.” He also greatly increased the use of “stop and frisk” tactics when he was Los Angeles commissioner despite his new boss’ promise to curtail usage, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force increased under his leadership.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Should we judge Mayor de Blasio by his words or by his actions? He certainly said words welcomed by most New Yorkers in the days leading up to the June 23 vote by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board in which it voted for an increase in rents for rent-stabilized apartments, as it has in each of its 45 years of existence. Consistent with the position he took during last year’s mayoral campaign, he publicly called for a rent freeze. He went so far as to say, hours before the vote, that:

“We need a course correction, a one-time action to clearly rectify the mistakes of the past, and a course correction that will actually provide fairness to tenants who have been charged more than they should’ve.”

But he also said the decision should be based on “the actual facts, the actual numbers.” That was a signal to not expect a rent freeze.

The Rent Guidelines Board is independent, but the mayor appoints all nine members; Mayor de Blasio has had time to appoint or re-appoint six of them. So although the mayor can’t dictate what the board members will do, he can select people who will follow his alleged philosophy. Previous mayors such as Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, each unreserved servants of New York’s two dominant industries — real estate and Wall Street — had no difficulty packing the board with appointees who routinely gave landlords significant rent increases.

Two board members represent tenants and two represent landlords, so the five “public” members are decisive. And it was one of Mayor de Blasio’s picks, an executive with M & T Bank, who put forth the proposal for a one percent raise despite widespread hope that this year would see the first-ever freeze. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the bank executive, Steven Flax, cut a deal with landlord interests on the board because the latter realized they would not be able to get the much bigger increase they sought.

Landlord profits rise with rents

According to a report prepared by the board — which presumably relies on landlord reporting and thus likely somewhat understates their income — apartments in rent-stabilized buildings generated an average net income of $436 per month in 2012. The average building surveyed has 45.3 units — thus, the average building yields $237,000 in profits for one year! It is true that many buildings are much smaller, but it is also true that many landlords own multiple properties.

Moreover, that average net income has increased 31.5 percent since 1990, with much of that coming since 2005. Landlord profits have increased all but one year since — that is, the rents collected have risen faster than expenses.

Mayor de Blasio has kept former Mayor Bloomberg’s real estate policies intact. During the billionaire ex-mayor’s reign, zoning laws were changed over wide swathes of land to allow luxury high-rises where either smaller residential buildings or commercial operations had been, accelerating gentrification. The zoning could have been reversed; 40-story towers are out of place in neighborhoods where buildings had been on a human scale. But just last month, Mayor de Blasio allowed the notorious developer Two Trees (which has already rapidly gentrified another Brooklyn neighborhood down the East River) to build towers up to 55 stories in Williamsburg, on the site of a shuttered sugar factory.

The developer that previously owned the property wanted to build an out-of-scale luxury housing complex that is certain to put still more upward pressure on local rents — this is a historically working class area — consistent with the new zoning. Having instead flipped the property to Two Trees, the “progressive” mayor decided to capitulate to the new developers’ demand to allow even bigger buildings in exchange for a token increase in the number of affordable units.

But perhaps we should not hold our breath waiting for the lower-priced apartments to be built — another developer, Forest City Ratner, has pushed the date for the promised affordable housing associated with the massive luxury-housing project at Barclays Center far into the future. That despite hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and buying rights to what had been public land for below market value.

Mayor de Blasio has made no move to reverse any of the Bloomberg-era rezoning — heavily opposed by neighborhood residents who rightly saw them as being implemented to benefit developers at their expense. He is eyeing similar rezonings (in other words, keeping the wave of gentrification moving) for another 15 neighborhoods. The mayor is already on the record as saying he will continue the Bloomberg administration’s policy of higher-density building. That’s music to the ears of the city’s billionaire developers. Not so much to neighborhoods lacking the infrastructure to handle such influxes.

Folding on charter schools

Then there is the matter of charter schools — funded through city taxes but privately run and given public-school space for free at the expense of the public-school students. Charter schools are the leading edge of efforts to privatize school systems and put them under corporate control while busting teachers’ unions so as to bring on younger teachers with less pay and less job security. And they achieve similar or worse results than traditional public schools, despite the hype that surrounds them.

In contrast to his campaign promises to reign in charter schools and make them pay for the space they use, Mayor de Blasio’s first move was to approve 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the Bloomberg  administration. Hedge funders and other corporate interests, backed by “Governor 1%,” Andrew Cuomo, swiftly reacted with a counter-offensive against that tepid opening. Governor Cuomo rammed through a provision in the state Legislature that requires the city to hand over space for free to charter schools.

Mayoral control of schools was fine when a billionaire mayor wanted to corporatize them but not when there is a theoretical possibility of a mayor allowing public input in education policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s reaction? Not so much as a whimper as his charter-school promises were eviscerated as if they had never existed, and then he played a critical role in defeating an electoral challenge to the governor when the latter was challenged for the nomination of the Working Families Party, a small party that seeks to provide progressive cover to Democrats by cross-endorsing them.

The mayor has yet to challenge the governor on any issue, despite the latter’s corporate agenda, backed heavily by the financial industry. The New York City government is hamstrung in advancing tenants’ interests because of the state law known as the Urstadt Law, which forbids local governments from enacting rent laws better than the limited protections allowed under state law. The mayor could push for the repeal of Urstadt, a long-time demand of housing activists, but has remained silent. The one thing he could have delivered, a rent freeze, he did not do.

Although it may seem that a one percent increase — the smallest ever granted — is not much different than zero percent, a first-ever freeze would have set an important precedent and created the conditions for future rent freezes — or rollbacks. In 2011, about 55 percent of New York City’s households lived in apartments with rents that exceeded 30 percent of household income, defined as the maximum affordable rent, up from about 45 percent ten years earlier.

Just as President Obama made a couple of symbolic gestures that were easy to do — successfully pushing for the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay act and withdrawing the Bush II/Cheney administration’s legal memos “legalizing” torture — Mayor de Blasio has overseen a reduction in “stop and frisk” police tactics and pushed for an expansion of pre-kindergarten school programs. Those are widely popular and represent a minimal “promise kept.” But, so far, overall, an Obama-esque drifting and surrender to corporate ideology. Both have effectively turned Right-wing offensives in bipartisan collaborations.

Trend is larger than any one personality

One person, one office-holder, can only do so much; all the more so is that the case when there is no sustained grassroots mobilization that can hold them to account. Nor should we overemphasize personalities when the structure that maintains corporate domination is as strong as ever. This is hardly a new phenomenon — North American liberals and European social democrats have been capitulating to corporate interests and adopting right-wing positions steadily through the three decades of the neoliberal era. The tenures of Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, François Hollande, to name only a few at the national level, tell us there is something much larger than individual personalities at work here.

There is a breakdown of coherence beyond dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, and cowardliness. It’s that North American liberalism and European social democracy no longer stand for anything. They, and their leaders, believe as fervently in capitalism and its limitations as strongly as any conservative. But although acknowledging problems and advocating reforms, they are trapped by their belief that capitalism will solve its own problems and nothing more than tinkering is necessary, or imaginable.

Beyond the exhaustion of liberalism and social democracy, and their submission to corporate perspectives, is the lack of mass movements. At the start of his first term, President Obama told his supporters to “make me” do what they wanted him to do by applying pressure. They didn’t, and haven’t. Mayor de Blasio did not go so far as to say that to his supporters, but the same principal applies. There is no serious movement pressuring him to not only fulfill his campaign promises, but, more importantly, to move the political agenda well beyond.

For example, why shouldn’t housing be a human right instead of a commodity for private profit?

In the absence of popular pressure, corporate money speaks all the louder. Ringing your hands in frustration gets you nothing. Organizing a movement, filling the streets, refusing to cooperate with business as usual changes societies. Until that happens, corporate power and money will continue to call the tune, no matter who is in office.

If you have enough money, you get to create education policy

When a society sees children as fodder for profit instead of tomorrow’s citizens to be educated, privatization has surely gotten out of hand. Shortcomings in education, a product of larger societal deficiencies, would best be addressed in a systemic manner, but instead we get hedge-fund managers leading attacks on those favorite scapegoats of the Right, teachers.

The latest exhibit comes to us from New York City, where new Mayor Bill de Blasio is under sustained attack for applying the most gentle tap to the brakes in the runaway train of charter-school approval. What crime did Mayor de Blasio commit that has brought thunderous denunciation onto his head? He approved only 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the administration of the previous mayor, financial industry billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge

New York City already has nearly 200 charter schools. These are controversial not simply because public money is directed from public schools to private, for-profit companies, but because the charter schools take space away public schools and pay no rent. Yep, private operators use public space for free while public school students lose facilities.

One of the largest operators of charter schools in New York is Harlem Success Academy, which operates 18 of them — all located in public school buildings. Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News, reported on the experience of the Mickey Mantle public school for special-education students when the academy arrived:

“ ‘We lost our library and a bunch of classrooms that [first] year,’ [special-education teacher Lynn] Manuell says. The following year, as Harlem Success increased its enrollment, Mickey Mantle was ordered to give up more space. ‘We lost our technology room, our music room, our art room and we had to start sharing the cafeteria, the gym and playground,’ Manuell says. … A fellow teacher conducts four periods a week of gym in a regular classroom because so little time has been allotted in the main gym to the Mickey Mantle pupils.”

Those with less get less so those with more get more

The chief executive officer of Harlem Success is Eva Moskowitz, who drew a salary of $488,000 in 2011. Her ability to pay for the public facilities she uses is demonstrated by a teacher who writes on education issues, Mercedes Schneider:

“Since 2006, Eva Moskowitz has been running a small charter empire that has at least $50 million in government per-pupil funding, at least $30.9 million in total, end-of-year assets, and the support of hedge fund millionaires. Why is it, then, that her Success Academies have never paid a dime in rent for the public school space occupied by her charter schools?”

A good question. Ms. Moskowitz, a former city council member, justifies her charter-school empire by saying that her students get higher test scores than the citywide average. But as a private school, her academies can pick and choose their students, notes education researcher Diane Ravitch:

“The media do not know that her schools do not serve the same demographic as the children in the public schools. She enrolls fewer children with special needs and fewer English language learners. Her schools have a high suspension and attrition rate.

Her logic seems to be that since she gets high test scores (note the above sentence as one does tend to get high scores by keeping out low-scoring students), she deserves to get whatever space she wants, rent-free. By that logic, the city should give extra privileges to students with high scores, and should take away space and privileges and programs from those with low scores.”

Maybe they aren’t better after all

Better results on standardized tests is a primary argument proponents of charter schools routinely make. The corporate media accepts these claims without investigation, yet the facts tell a different story. At best, charter schools have roughly comparable results; those that show better results are in the minority.

A widely cited 2009 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 83 percent of charter schools studied in 16 U.S. states had results that were either worse or not significantly different than public school results. A second study by the center in 2013, covering 26 states and New York City, found that 75 percent of charter schools had results that were not significantly different or were worse than public school results.

The Rand Corporation, hardly an entity hostile to business interests, reached substantially similar conclusions in its study of California charter schools:

“Regarding student achievement, results are mixed. Students in charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than students in conventional public schools, but there is variation among the types of charter schools. With respect to governance, only a small proportion of chartering authorities are collecting accountability information such as student grades, promotion rates, and dropout rates.”

Halfway across the country, in Milwaukee, a report released in December 2012 by the Forward Institute found that the higher scores of the city’s charter schools in comparison to public schools “is explained by their bias selection of low truancy students.” Overall, however, this report found that charter schools have had a negative impact on student poverty because “schools with higher poverty enrollment levels have experienced per-pupil funding cuts more than two times the cuts in the most affluent districts.” The report’s sobering conclusion is this:

“[W]hen controlling for school and community factors, charter schools in Milwaukee do not offer a better educational outcome for students.”

Just as in New York, you can “achieve” better results if you can pick and choose your students, and provide more resources.

This offensive against public education is not new. When I was a student myself in 1970s New Jersey and an adult still living there in the following decade, the incessant ideology was that Catholic schools were better than public schools. The Catholic schools also could rid themselves of less desirable students, and the thesis wasn’t true anyway. When a ranking of area high schools was undertaken, the two public high schools in my home town were ranked first and second, while the Catholic schools ranked well down the pack. I was fortunate to grow up in a town that put money into its school system.

Turning schools into drill halls

Charter schools place a heavy emphasis on standardized testing. Yet even if it were true that charter schools could deliver consistently higher scoring on them, it is questionable at best whether such tests are actually evidence of student learning.

A National Research Council report in 2011 found that “The available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education.” That shouldn’t be a controversial statement — turning schools into drill halls so students can regurgitate material to pass a test is not a substitute for leveraging teachers’ professional skills to encourage creative learning. The council’s report states:

“The tests that are typically used to measure performance in education fall short of providing a complete measure of desired educational outcomes in many ways. This is important because the use of incentives for performance on tests is likely to reduce emphasis on the outcomes that are not measured by the test.

The academic tests used with test-based incentives obviously do not directly measure performance in untested subjects and grade levels or development of such characteristics as curiosity and persistence. However, those tests also fall short in measuring performance in the tested subject and grade in important ways. … [S]cores on the tests used with incentives may give an inflated picture of learning with respect to the full range of the content standards.”

Here we have an important clue. Corporate titans want employees with strong technical skills without the ability to think independently. In U.S. universities, there is a heavy emphasis on business and business-friendly courses while liberal arts are under sustained attack. The charter-school movement is very well funded and promoted by industrialists and financiers — this is not altruism based on supposed concern for student learning, but rather an attempt to take over education to suit their narrow economic interests.

The billionaires who drive education policy

On the national level in the United States, by far the three biggest funders are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Microsoft founder Bill Gates became wealthy producing software that doesn’t work well because he can exploit a monopoly he was accidentally handed; Eli Broad became wealthy building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs; and the Waltons benefit enormously from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China because that is the only way they can meet Wal-Mart’s demand for low prices.

What possible qualification do such people have to dictate education policy?

Nonetheless, they have driven policy across the country, even at the federal level. The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition for education funding, the intellectual product of the three foundations, induced states to change laws and favor charters to get the money, according to a detailed report by Joanne Barkan in Dissent. The Gates Foundation even supplied consultants to states to help them win Race to the Top money. That is merely one of numerous examples, Ms. Barkan writes:

“A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.”

Hedge-fund millionaires are bankrolling much of the push for charter schools on the local level in Chicago and New York. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (“Mayor 1%”) sought to crush the teachers’ union and drastically increase the use of charter schools as part of his neoliberal agenda when his hard-line tactics induced the teachers to go on strike in September 2012.

He failed because the union worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that the teachers would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people were with the teachers.

Providing muscle for Mayor Emanuel were hedge-fund managers running an organization called “Education Reform Now,” an advocate for charter schools that paid for a series of automated telephone calls to Chicago parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for a barrage of television commercials attacking the teachers during the strike.

Hedge-fund money talks, politicians snap to attention

And that brings us back to New York. Hedge-fund managers are major backers of charter schools there; they are heavily represented on the boards of the Harlem Success Academy and its individual schools. They are also financial backers of New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself a promoter of charter schools and corporate agendas in general who spoke at rally organized by Eva Moskowitz on March 4.

That was an event in which Ms. Moskowitz closed her schools and bused her students to the rally, which merited no comment in the corporate media. Just ask yourself: What would the reaction have been had public schools closed for political purposes, particularly if done so with union backing. Everyone would have to wear earplugs the screaming denunciations would be so loud.

The fact that charter schools tend to be non-unionized with less experienced teachers making less money and possessing less job security should not be left out of the picture.

Governor Cuomo has racked up considerable contributions from financiers seeking to control education, according to a Chalkbeat New York report:

“Cuomo’s reelection bid has so far received nearly $400,000 from a cadre of wealthy supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School network, according to an updated tally of newly-released campaign filings. Some money has even come from Moskowitz’s political action committee, Great Public Schools, which has given $65,000 to Cuomo since 2011. … By one tally of the 2014 filings, Cuomo racked up at least $800,000 in donations from 27 bankers, real estate executives, business executives, philanthropists and advocacy groups who have flocked to charter schools and other education causes in recent years.”

Although recently disbanded when watchdogs began requesting its donors be made public, the governor had set up a “Committee to Save New York,” a group of wealthy business leaders and real estate barons that spent $17 million promoting government austerity, cuts to pensions and tax cuts for the rich.

Education advocates in New York City — those concerned with students and not profits — have pinned their hopes on Mayor de Blasio, who promised that he would charge charter schools rent. So far, however, he seems to have gotten cold feet. He has yet to announce a plan, and now says he wants to charge them on a sliding scale rather than a standard rate. The New York City Independent Budget Office has calculated that the city would generate $92 million by charging a flat rate of $2,320 per student.

Millionaire hedge-fund managers and other wealthy backers are opposed, helping to orchestrate ferocious attacks in the corporate media, particularly by the city’s tabloids. The New York Times reports that charter advocates “warn that such a move would alienate donors amid worries that their contributions would end up in the city treasury.” Everybody, through paying taxes, sharing responsibility for the most basic of social services — educating children — should be the most minimum duty for anyplace that considers itself civilized.

That little tidbit about “alienation” speaks volumes about the inequality that has become so pervasive and reveals the real agenda here — educating some children so that they become corporate drones and throwing away other children as excess humanity without value. Why doesn’t this sicken more of us?

Does Occupy Wall Street have a future?

Will Occupy Wall Street have more birthday celebrations? The movement marked its second anniversary with a daylong series of events in its New York City birthplace, but with smaller numbers than it has drawn for past events.

Having spent September 17 at series of rallies and marches, I have no interest in surmising the end of a movement into which so many have placed great hopes. But two years on from the electric beginnings of Occupy in Zuccotti Park and its rapid spread to hundreds of cities, it must be asked: What is the future for Occupy? Or has it accomplished its mission, to be supplanted by as yet unformed movements to carry forward the work of building a better world?

Photo by Mark Dunlea, via www.popularresistance.org

Photo by Mark Dunlea, via http://www.popularresistance.org

The Occupiers and allies ranged from a couple hundred to several hundred at the various rallies and marches — noticeably smaller than 2012’s first anniversary. A credible showing considering the breadth of events that included a march on the New York Stock Exchange, assemblies at Zuccotti Park, a rally in Washington Square Park focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, street theater in Times Square, a rally for a “Robin Hood” financial-industry tax near the United Nations and marches connecting some of these. And all this on a work day.

Nonetheless, such crowds do not constitute a mass movement. The organizing wasn’t helped by fissiparous tendencies; a painstaking effort to reach consensus was undermined by one organizer deciding to do his own thing with his own Occupy group. (An organizer involved in the anniversary preparations told me this was the most difficult organizing he had been involved with in his many years of movement work.)

Despite the “leaderless” ideal of Occupy, there are leaders within the remnants of Occupy and they are not necessarily working harmoniously. There is nothing unique happening here: There is no social movement or large organization where these problems do not arise. But they do not help an organization already on the wane. That Occupy is a dwindling movement is a development with multiple roots, not least of which is the violent repression of it soon after its exhilarating birth.

Speaking truth to power makes those in power angry

There is no mystery as to why that repression was unleashed — Occupy unambiguously critiqued the corporate dominance of our world, the gross inequality that is worsening, the lack of accountability on the part of the financial industry and — perhaps the highest crime — encouraging people to see social divisions in terms of class. Not by explicitly referring to class or using class terminology, but by popularizing the concept with the “1% vs. the 99%” narrative. There is considerable room for debate on the size of the elite that dominates capitalist society (there are those who argue for higher and lower figures than 1%), but that such an elite is recognizable is demonstrated in how quickly the concept spread.

The Department of Homeland Security coordinated the crackdown on Occupy across the United States and the FBI had its hand in the repression as well, branding Occupiers as “terrorists” and plotting to disrupt its events. Both agencies worked closely with not only local police departments but even with the country’s banks. Police eagerly attacked Occupy encampments and actions, such as Oakland, California, police firing tear-gas canisters at point-blank range. The New York City police destroying the Occupy Wall Street library certainly was emblematic.

The anger that fueled Occupy has not dissipated, nor have the issues that animate the movement. We should never underestimate the importance of naming the problem, of clearly opposing what is wrong. No matter the future, Occupy will always be the movement that provided the service of changing the conversation. Overnight, we went from wondering why there was no organized response from the Left, leaving a vacuum filled by the corporate-created Tea Party, to a new orientation in which the actual agents of economic collapse were placed in a metaphorical bulls-eye rather than the traditional scapegoats of minorities, immigrants and government.

The real problem is the system that enables the bankers, not the personalities of the bankers themselves, but even with its emphasis on banker greed Occupy was, and is, traveling on the right track. The same institutions sit atop the economic pyramid; there has been no accountability for those who brought on the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Governments around the world continue to be under the dominance of these same institutions and people. Discouragement that the energy created by Occupy has not led to any change is one factor in the movement’s decline. Even more so, the discouragement engendered by the violent response to Occupy, a resignation induced in many that nothing can change, is a factor — the very purpose of that violence.

Even leaderless groups have leaders

While acknowledging the considerable force of the factors in the preceding paragraph, we nonetheless should examine the structure of Occupy itself. The desire to not replicate past top-down patterns and integrate horizontal decision-making is admirable, but the idea that there should be no leaders doesn’t pass the test of the real world. Occupy has leaders, the same as any other organization, but when they are not acknowledged, accountability is eroded. Decentralization, ironically, opens opportunities for ambitious leaders to promote themselves.

Such leaders may be acting on what they perceive to be the organization’s best interest, or they may be acting in ways to undermine the organization. There is suspicion by some people involved in Occupy organizing that others who they viewed as acting in destructive ways may have been Democratic Party operatives seeking to disrupt the movement. I am in no position to know if that is true, but there is more than ample evidence that the consensus painstakingly created was subject to being disregarded despite the sanctity of consensus within Occupy Wall Street. Having competing events at the same time is one way to shrink crowds.

There is also no doubt that Democrats have variously sought to co-opt it or tried to destroy Occupy. Let us not forget who the occupant of the White House was when the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI unleashed coordinated violence upon it across the country. Such tactics, traditionally visited upon any U.S. movement that makes a direct critique on the system instead of acting for small reforms, are always supplemented with more subtle machinations.

Circling back to the structure of Occupy itself, a discussion of its tactics can’t be avoided. Occupy was reasonably clear about what it is against — but it is never enough to be against something. We also have to be for something.

Refusing to make demands became something of a fetish, even allowing for the slow process of building consensus at long assemblies and the diversity of opinions and backgrounds. Understanding the problem and naming the sources of the problem are the first concrete steps, without which progress is impossible. Concrete ideas and models should follow — goals to work toward.

Unwinding the disastrous policies that have brought the world to its present state won’t happen on its own or by moral persuasion, but through organized work that will have to clear giant roadblocks and face the hostility of the institutions and people who benefit from the current system and the governments they dominate through their wealth and power. The process is called “struggle” for a reason.

Perhaps Occupy is not the organizational model to create a sustained movement. Perhaps newer groups will have to continue the work of Occupy, in conjunction with groups already at work. Whatever its future, Occupy has been an indispensable part of the work to create a better world. We can only hope that it will continue to be there.

See also:

Attacks on critical thinking vs. cheers for scapegoating

The long arc of mass movements

Seeing bias but supporting the architect of bias: We have a long way yet to go

Half a century has passed since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, a passage of time symbolized by a Black man sworn in as president on a holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Yet it would be naïve to suggest that racism is now something in our past; that Dr. King’s hope that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin has become everyday reality.

Racism is so woven into the fabric of society that it is sadly comprehensible that two generations of civil rights struggle has not eradicated it. The contradictions that swirl around a subject that is still uncomfortable for most to discuss were captured in a New York Times survey published last week. The survey asked a series of questions related to the “stop and frisk” tactic used by the New York City Police Department in which police officers routinely stop young people on the street and search them in what is claimed to be an effort to catch potential criminals before they commit a crime.

In 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available, the New York Civil Liberties Association reports that New Yorkers were stopped and searched by the police 685,724 times. Of these stops, 88 percent were reported by the police as stops of people who were totally innocent. Only nine percent of these stops were of White people. Those numbers are typical for a program that has run for several years.

The Times survey found that:

  • 55 percent believe that New York City police favor Whites over Blacks, while 27 percent believe that both Whites and Blacks are treated fairly.
  • By almost identical margins, New Yorkers believe that police favor Whites over Hispanics.
  • 61 percent say they approve of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly while 24 percent disapprove.

People of Color were more likely to observe bias and less likely to support the commissioner than Whites, but the general pattern was the same. That majorities could simultaneously acknowledge racial bias and support the police chief responsible for a practice that most exemplifies that bias demonstrates that regressive attitudes like racism retain a strong social hold. Virtually all of the more 1,000 people who participated in the Times survey surely would vehemently oppose a hooded Klansman and look upon the Jim Crow South with horror. And yet a majority have little trouble in voicing approval of systematic harassment, a routine of criminalizing young people simply for being Black or Hispanic.

Mistaken beliefs that stop-and-frisk are effective in suppressing crime account for much of the reason for those approvals. But it is far from only that. And the law-and-order angle is not untinged with stereotyping — I vividly remember watching an interview of a White producer of a typical police “reality show” who, when asked why his program showed Black people almost exclusively as perpetrators, unashamedly answered, “Because they are the ones who commit the crimes.”

Ah, yes, it’s always the “Other” who is responsible for social problems.

The power of divide-and-conquer

And here we get closer to the reasons for the persistence of racism. And also to the persistence of sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, national hatreds and other social ills. In any society that is based upon inequality — where an elite arrogates to itself a hugely disproportionate share of wealth and dominates the levers of power and opinion-making to maintain its elite status — strong social divisions work to maintain such inequity. Divide-and-conquer is an old technique.

Pre-capitalist societies were subject to scarcities; the precarious nature of agriculture and lack of modern medicine guaranteed that periodic famines would leave too little for everybody to survive. Lords needed a powerful ideology (and deadly force when necessary) to enforce their “rights” to take so much of what their peasants or serfs produced. Nowadays, the dizzying increase in productivity ensures that mass starvation is not a possibility, if you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country, however much inequality ensures that millions in those countries will go to bed hungry some of the time.

But whether it is the aristocracy and the church dominating peasants, with the church continually telling them that their subordinate position is dictated by God, or capitalists and their corporate mass media dominating working people, with the mass media and orthodox economists telling them that the world cannot be organized any other way, the same dynamics are at work. But any ideology has to be supplemented. And what better than divide-and-conquer?

Racism (and sexism and other backward ideologies) are artificial constructs. The origination of modern racism can be traced to seventeenth century colonial Virginia. The plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying massacres of Native Americans.

At first, White indentured servants and Black slaves were treated similarly by plantation owners on the North American mainland, excepting the significant fact that the servants had seven-year terms in contrast to the slaves’ lifetime sentences.* Servants’ sentences, however, were frequently extended. The Virginia of the seventeenth century had workhouses on the English model; children of poor parents could be removed and sent to workhouses, enabling those parents to be pressed back into the ranks of servants. Black slaves and White indentured servants socialized together, helped each other escape and joined in rebellions.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

The genocide of Native Americans — ultimately reducing their populations by 95 percent — was of course well under way across the New World. The plantation-based economies there were dependent on slaves, and the European countries that were the earliest sites of the emerging capitalist system grew wealthy. More specifically, the emerging capitalist class grew wealthy and increasingly assertive in political matters.

Old World capitalists and New World slaves

European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. (At this time, the Caribbean was far more important than mainland colonies, and conditions for slaves there was harsher; owners of Caribbean plantations often worked their slaves to death within a few years.) Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to European accumulations of wealth. He wrote:

“Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”**

This early buoying of capitalism can be obscured because slavery is a system best suited for accumulating agricultural surpluses; slavery’s association with plantations, however, can’t be disassociated from the use of plantation profits. Those surpluses provided investment capital for capitalist development despite slavery having been abolished within the internal British and other Western European capitalist systems.

Slave revolts and popular movements had much to do with abolishments of slavery, but the changing economic system was prominent as well. Slavery, as well as serfdom, is incompatible with industrial capitalism’s need for “flexible” workforces that can be hired or fired at will and for large numbers of consumers who can buy the capitalists’ products.

Slavery ended in the South, but subordination enforced with state-sanctioned terrorism did not until the civil rights movement a century later, when activists quite literally staked their lives on ending it. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.”

Imprisonment and a lack of jobs

This line of thinking, widely propagated, is a direct descendant of earlier, more crude ideologies. And from here it is a small step to justify mass incarceration and the racial bias exemplified by the U.S. prison system. More than 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, a total and a rate that are the highest in the world. Black men are incarcerated at a rate almost seven times that of White men; two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are People of Color although Whites use drugs in similar amounts.

It is no longer unusual for police chiefs in large cities to be Black, and even the president and his attorney general are Black, yet the conveyor belt of repression continues to run smoothly. This is an institutional, structural problem that is untouched by the symbolism of a single leader.

In this neoliberal era, massive economic dislocations and poverty have made migrants of tens and hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom are small farmers forced off their lands due to cheap, often-subsidized agricultural products imported from the strongest capitalist countries. Corollary to dominant/subordinate pairings are immigrants, particularly those who become undocumented workers — another source of exploitable labor and a new means of fostering divisions when jobs are harder to find.

It so much easier to point at immigrants and blame them for depressing wages rather than examine the economic and social structure, at home and abroad, that puts mass immigration in motion and creates the conditions for the exploitation. Similarly, it is much more comforting to see oneself as a self-made success rather than someone who does work hard but nonetheless is a recipient of social privileges. In a country in which racism is so densely interwoven into the fabric of society, can any of us honestly say we are free of all prejudices?

The question, then, becomes one of a willingness to overcome social conditioning. Shaking one’s head sadly at racial bias in policing but supporting the police chief who intensifies that bias and voting for the politicians who appoint the chief is an unwillingness to critique the world you live in, and all the inequalities that have made today’s world what it is. A better world is not going to come into being by wishful thinking; it’ll only come about when we are not only willing to confront ourselves and our society, but to act.

* This and the following paragraph are based on Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present, pages 37-58 [HarperCollins, 1995]; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, page 297-299, 327-328 [W.W. Norton & Co., 1975]; and Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, pages 252-254 [Bookmarks Publications, 1999]
** Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, page 88 [Howard University Press, 1982]